Mandate the Magician

by Bernard McCormick Tuesday, August 02, 2011 No Comment(s)

We sometimes wonder if people know why they vote for the people they vote for. But during the recent debt crisis debate, we wondered even more wonderfully if people who get elected to go to Washington know why they got elected.

The phrase “doing what the people back home sent me here to do” was repeated so many times in the last few weeks we wanted to scream at the TV, “How do you know what the people back home think?”

Case in point, starting at the top. President Obama got elected in 2008 when he made eloquent speeches talking up “change.” But did he understand what the people who voted for him understood him to mean by that vague inspiration? Especially when so many people who never voted before voted for him, and when black voters appeared at the polls in record numbers and voted overwhelmingly for him. Were they voting for change in the color of the man at the top, to be part of a historic social event, or were they voting to change the health care and insurance systems and promise everything to everybody and not worry about paying for it?

It reminded one of the 1960 election when an Irish-Catholic ran on a platform that he wasn’t satisfied that the Russians had beaten us into space and we needed to catch up in an arms race with those who would wish us harm. Did people ask if that arms gap claim were true (it turns out it wasn’t) or did they vote for JFK because he was an Irish-Catholic who had a gifted speech writer? We worked the polls that day, and our precinct in Philadelphia, which had a large Catholic population, the faithful voted early and often. Something like 75 percent voted for the Irish-Catholic. Astute observers did not think the arms gap carried the day.

Back to the future. President Obama clearly thought his victory was a mandate for change. But change to what? Did it occur to him that many of his constituents wanted change back to the past, before 9/11, before the housing bubble when real estate only went up, when everybody had a job, before the Wall Street scares, before media images of young soliders coming home with cold, jarring metal rods where their legs used to be?

If it did not, then last year’s election should have. In that mid-term contest, as usually happens, the opposition party made a comeback, partly because that is the way of politics, but also because many of those those first-time voters who supported him in 2008 did not turn out. Maybe they were disappointed that their idea of change, which actually meant better times, had not been realized. Or maybe they just didn’t bother to vote.

Whatever, the result was a bunch of new people in Congress, and we suspect the cycle repeated itself. The Tea Party winners thought they had been sent to Washington with a mandate to change government. But did those who voted for them know what kind of change they wanted? Maybe they just were against expanding entitlements, or giving jobs to illegal immigrants. But did they want the kind of mania that obsessed the country for the last few months, with possible long-term consequences for the economy that could hurt everybody? Did they want to stop their social security checks, kill Medicare, drive their stock portfolios down, deny soldiers pay, deny Depends for grandma?

Some may have wanted all these things, but probably most only wanted to rein in big government, at least fake at balancing the budget, get people working again, ban red light cameras, fly the Confederate flag on Memorial Day. The danger is that you don’t always get what you thought you voted for, if you knew in the first place.

Bottom line: Get rid of the word “mandate.” Unless you speak of Mandate the Magician. And even he was not tricky enough for these political times.


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